55th Ann Arbor Film Festival Awards Recap

Monday, March 27, 2017 - 5:36pm

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This past Sunday, the awards ceremony of the 55th Ann Arbor Film Festival opened with a jab at the festival itself. Before the award winning shorts were screened, they played what the introductory remarks called a “PSA.” It was an SNL skit from last fall that poked fun at the experimental film festival. Within a genre of filmmaking that seems ripe for this sort of mockery, the films recognized on Sunday stood out for their simultaneous mastery of narrative and innovative artistic expression.

The Ken Burns Award for Best of the Festival was awarded to “Xylophone,” a collage animation piece by Jennifer Levonian. In the film, Levonian pairs striking cut-paper animation with a flowing, absurdist plot. With no dialogue, the film follows a pregnant mother and her daughter as they travel across a gentrified Philadelphia neighborhood bouncing on exercise balls in “mommy and me” yoga classes and picking up goats at the petting zoo. “Xylophone” demonstrates Levonian’s mastery of animation, comedy, social commentary and unconventional, yet accessible, narrative techniques.

An equally smart animated film, “‘The Talk’ True Stories About the Birds and the Bees,” won the Prix DeVarti Award for Funniest Film. Alain Delannoy’s short film weaves together the first-person testimonials of a handful of men who recount the talks their parents gave — or didn’t give — them about sex. From the cringe-worthy to the absurd, Delannoy’s film captures a very precise moment in adolescence with a gentleness that allows his subjects to be vulnerable. Shown as faceless, animated silhouettes, the men tell their stories anonymously, a trick that allows the film to get as close to its subjects as it does in its brief 11 minute runtime.

A less traditionally narrative piece, “Commodity City,” earned its creator Jessica Kingdon the award for Most Promising Filmmaker. Kingdon’s film explores the world’s largest wholesale market in Yiwu, China. The mall spans over five miles end to end, but Kingdon stays close to her subjects, favoring detail over scale. She captures an assortment of booths — people selling everything from clocks to rope to flowers. At first, the subjects are still and quiet, they watch videos on their phones and type on computers, almost visually consumed by the products around them. As we settle into the space, the subjects begin to behave as if no one is watching them. A girl pulls a stool out from under her younger brother, a boy picks his nose, others fight over toys. Without a plot or much dialogue, Kingdon builds an immensely intricate and visually stunning world inside the mall.

In addition to the specific awards, a number of films received Jury Awards. A standout among the Jury Award winners was William Caballero’s “Victor & Isolina,” a part claymation, part animation piece about the relationship between the filmmakers' grandparents. The narrative is built around recordings of an interview between Caballero and each grandparent, but none of them are seen until the films credits. Rather, Caballero shoots small doll-like figurines and animates the content of the interview in paper-cut letters onscreen. The film stands apart from others in the festival for its innovative approach to animation and the way in which it blurs the lines between traditional animation and live action.

Other notable wins include Gabriel Ortega’s “Emelina” taking home the Tios Award for Best International Film, the \aut\ Film Award for Best LGBTQ Film going to Elegance Bratton’s “Walk for Me” and Jonathan Rattner picking up the Michael Moore Award for Best Documentary for his film “The Interior.” A full list of winners is available here.